Hot Pstromi warms the crowd at Spencertown
by Seth Rogovoy

(SPENCERTOWN, N.Y., November 17, 2002) – From the Ladino tradition of Jewish Spain to Hasidic devotional music, from Central European-influenced Yiddish cabaret to Eastern European klezmer dance melodies, Yale Strom’s ensemble Hot Pstromi cut a broad geographical and musical swath in its concert at the Spencertown Academy on Saturday night.

The quartet, featuring Strom on violin, Sprocket J. Royer on bass viol, Ismail Butera on accordion and a Turkish, lute-like instrument called saz, and Elizabeth Schwartz on vocals, was a versatile ensemble, able to change styles, rhythms and moods on a dime, sometimes even within the same song.

The group played a mix of familiar, traditional melodies and original compositions by Strom that fit right in with the well-known material. The band kicked off with a stately dance piece Strom wrote for a stage adaptation of S. Anski’s “The Dybbuk,” full of classical flavorings that metamorphosed into the popular freylekh dance tune, “Di zilberne khasene.”

Butera lent his unique flavorings on saz to a version of “La Comida, La Manana,” one of several Sephardic, or Spanish-Jewish, numbers to feature Schwartz tackling the Middle Eastern art of taksim, improvisational modal singing in acrobatic, melismatic swoops of her dusky, colorful alto.

Royer on bass and Butera on accordion laid down a drone over which Strom fiddled a melody based on a nign, a wordless vocal melody, in this case from the Stoliner Hasidic tradition. After several times through, the number transformed into a double-time, klezmer dance tune, illustrating the historical evolution of how devotional melodies made their way into the repertoire of instrumental wedding bands. The same dynamic was played out with a version of “Ma Yofus,” the very DNA of Yiddish music, serving approximately the same role for Jewish musicians that Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” has played for generations of jazz improvisers.

Schwartz sang “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin,” a cabaret-style Yiddish song that Strom wrote to accompany his new documentary film by that name about Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomous region in the Far Eastern region of the Soviet Union that still exists today. She also offered renditions of Yiddish swing favorites like “Bay mir bistu sheyn” and “Rumenye, Rumenye.”

Strom was a gregarious frontman, peppering each tune with voluminous commentary, sometimes even within the tune itself. His manic approach undoubtedly feeds his eclecticism and in part accounts for his prolific output – eight recordings, three films, seven books over the last 21 years.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 19, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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